I'm continuing the previous post. I'm posting this a bit early because I'll be gone tomorrow morning and want to make sure it gets up.
A while back, on an episode of “The Closer,” the police had been searching for a serial killer. The twist was that organs were missing from the victims, and the victims all were suspected of being rapists. The police find their killer in the middle of performing a heart transplant in his inner-city clinic. (We’ll overlook the dramatic license with the credibility of a doctor performing this procedure single-handed. Then again, he wasn’t worried about saving the life of his “donor”—his goal was to harvest the heart.
So, the cops show up and want to arrest him. Should be simple. However, the previous scene was in a hospital, where a young child who had been on the waiting list for a new heart for some time was being prepped for surgery. The cops spoke to her parents who said they’d just about given up hope, when they’d gotten a call that someone had specifically donated a heart for their daughter. Without it, she was certain to die.
This creates a choice the cops have to make. Do they stop the surgery, saving the life of the possible rapist on the table? If they arrest the doctor before he finishes his surgery, the child dies. If they wait, but follow the law, the heart becomes evidence and can’t possible be given to the child. Again, she dies.
For the cops, it becomes a matter of letter of the law versus a humanitarian decision. An easy decision. Of course not—the drama would fly out the window.
Deb Dixon says you should give your characters choices, but they should be of the “sucks” and “suckier” variety. Or try giving them what they want—and see what happens when the consequences aren’t what they expect. Throwing in significant consequences will definitely make the reader want to keep reading, but even the little choices give depth to your characters and your story. And without choices, you won't have a character arc.
Writing professionals much more knowledgeable than I have stressed that your characters must want something in every scene, even if it's only a glass of water.
For any "want" there are three possible outcomes: Yes, No, or Yes, but.
Let's see what happens with each.
If the answer is "yes" your scene is pretty much over. The conflict is gone; the character has what he wanted.
If the answer is "no" then your character must move on. He either tries another approach to meeting his goal, or changes his goal. There's some conflict here, and your reader might be saying, "Hmmm…so what will he do now?"
Perhaps the best outcome for the story is the "yes, but" because it means the character must make a choice.
Let's say Joe desperately needs a raise. Maybe his mother will be kicked out of her nursing home if he can't make their increased payments. Or she needs an expensive medical treatment. Or she's fallen prey to the Nigerian Internet Scam. It's your story, you get to decide. He goes to talk to his boss.
1. The boss says yes, Joe says thanks and everything is sweetness and light.
2. The boss says, no. Joe either has to wait until the next raise opportunity, or he might quit. There are a few more possibilities, but slamming doors in your character's face might not give you enough places to go next.
3. The boss says "yes, I'll increase your salary by 33%, but you will have to change your work schedule. Instead of Monday through Friday, you'll work Wednesday through Sunday."
Sounds good. But what if Joe works with inner city children on the weekends, and without him, it's likely they'll go over to the dark side? Maybe Joe is the only stable element in their lives, and if he leaves, he takes their trust and future with him?
Now Joe has choices to make. He gets the raise, the kids lose out. He doesn't get the raise—he can't afford to keep his mother in her nursing home.
Sometimes it's good to give the character what they want--but they discover that might not be what they wanted after all.
An example Deb Dixon uses is the pregnant heroine whose only wish is that her baby be given the best possible life, one she was denied. She decides she'll give the baby up for adoption. A wealthy, loving couple seems perfect. Then she has the baby and looks into its eyes. Instant bonding. She has to choose. She wanted a good life As the author, your job is to make the choice difficult. The reader shouldn't be able to know what the choice will be. Or, if there seems to be only one possible choice, then the reader should worry about how the character will be able to deal with it.
The choices your characters make might seem like "no brainers' to them, but they will show your readers what kind of people they are.
When Frankie, in WHEN DANGER CALLS, finds out her mother needs looking after, she thinks nothing of quitting her job and moving across the country to help. She could have hired someone, or put her mother in a nursing home, but for Frankie, it's all about keeping people happy.
In WHAT'S IN A NAME? Kelli's goal when the book opens is to complete Camp Getaway, which will be a haven for inner city children. However, she's also got a secret, and when Blake turns up at her door, she fears she's been discovered. She has to choose between completing the project or finding out why someone is after her.
Although not all choices need to have dire consequences, they should all have some consequences. And the consequences shouldn't be, "and everything was wonderful"—at least not until the end of the book. (And even then, they shouldn't be too wonderful!)
What choices do you give your characters? And what obstacles do you throw in their way? Any examples from books you've read, where choices gave depth to the character?